Arizona Rubber

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First-place Roadrunners have much to be thankful for

 

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When asked about the strength of this season’s very young Tucson Roadrunners team, head coach Mike Van Ryn called into play one word: resiliency.

That quality certainly came into play during Tucson’s three-game pre-Thanksgiving series against the I-8 Border Trophy rival San Diego Gulls.

The high-flying Roadrunners entered the first game, Nov. 17, at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, with the top record among the American Hockey League’s 15 Western Conference teams.

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Since being edged, 7-6, in the season opener by the visiting Gulls on Oct. 7, Tucson had promptly reeled off a 10-game point streak (8-0-2) to climb into first place in the Pacific Division standings.

But the Arizona team didn’t look at all like a first place team in being flattened, 8-3, by a San Diego squad anxious to put a three-game home ice losing streak behind it. Highlights for the visitors included Lane Pederson‘s fourth goal of the season and a goal and assist from rookie scoring sensation Dylan Strome.

Goaltender Adin Hill, with three call-ups to the parent NHL Arizona Coyotes this season, departed the ice after 23:36 following San Diego’s fourth goal. His replacement, rookie Hunter Miska, surrendered four goals in 36:24.

The Roadrunners otherwise looked like roadkill.

Van Ryn seemed almost apologetic about the team’s performance in a post-game interview.

“A few unlucky breaks — we got away from our game plan,” the Tucson coach explained. “This was our first game where we faced much adversity. I don’t think we handled it real well. But we’ve been pretty resilient to come back after we haven’t played well. It will be interesting to see what we can do (in the next game).”

Resilient — that word again.

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A different Tucson team showed up for the rematch in San Diego on Nov. 18. The Roadrunners took a 1-0 lead on a power play goal by Lawson Crouse at the 6:19 mark of the opening period. Starting goaltender Marek Langhamer made the narrow 1-0 lead hold up until the Gulls put the crowd of 10,002 on its feet with back-to-back goals in the third period by Andy Welinski and Spencer Abbott to put the host in front 2-1.

But the visitors weren’t finished. After pulling Langhammer with 1:57 to play, Tucson was the beneficiary of a boarding penalty by San Diego’s Kalle Kossila, playing in his first game back with the Gulls after a seven-game call-up to the Anaheim Ducks, with 1:46 to play.

With the two-man advantage, it took all of 12 seconds for the Roadrunners to tie the game on a blast from the circle by Pederson.

For both Crouse and Pederson, it was their third goal in as many games.

The game would go into overtime and then a shootout before the Gulls prevailed 2-1 in the tiebreaker to earn the extra point in the standings.

But after being embarrassed the night before, the Arizona team had fought back to earn a key point on the road.

The series switched venues to Tucson Arena on Nov. 22. The Roadrunners, energized by familiar surroundings and the emotional support from 3,617 hometown fans, crushed the Gulls 5-0 to keep hold of first place in the division standings.

It was a crushing defeat for San Diego in more ways than none. The Gulls entered the Thanksgiving eve matchup with an all-time 13-1-0-1 record in the history between the teams and had never lost on Arizona ice (7-0 at Tucson Arena).

Strome, whom the Roadrunners received on assignment from the Coyotes on Oct. 9, earned first star of the game honors with four points (two goals, two assists). Hill stopped all 29 shots he faced to earn the second star of the game award with his second shutout of the season. Defenseman Kyle Wood, another Coyotes top prospect and a 2016-17 AHLAll-Star, earned third star honors with a goal and assist.

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Strome, the third overall pick by the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Draft, recorded his second career four-point game. He’s had immediate impact on the Roadrunners’ fortunes with six goals and 16 assists for 22 points in 13 games since joining the AHL team. He’s accumulated 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in the past five games and has eclipsed Brendan Perlini‘s 17-game point total (14 goals, five assists) from last season as a measuring stick.

Perlini, a first round pick (12th overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Coyotes, has amassed 29 points in 75 games for the Coyotes since earning promotion to the NHL squad in 2016-17.

It seems only a matter of time before Strome joins him there.

Tucson out-shot San Diego 37-29, scoring two power play goals, while holding the Gulls’ top-ranked AHL power play unit scoreless in four man-advantage opportunities.

With the Nov. 22 victory, the start of a five-game homestand, the Roadrunners improved to 9-2-2-1 through 14 games with a .750 winning percentage. Despite conceding four points to the Gulls in the three-game series, the Roadrunners remained 7-1-1-1 in their last 10 games.

Good things are happening in Tucson.

“Our guys have been working hard,” Van Ryn said. “They are learning a new system. They’re executing it pretty well. Our practice habits have been good. Our leadership group has done a wonderful job with our guys getting them to come together as a group, wanting them to play for each other.”

“We play a good defensive game,” Hill noted. “We have a good offensive game. I think we play the right system and need to keep going.”

“We work for each other,” added rookie Jens Looke, a 20-year-old Swede playing his first season in North America “We work hard every day, and that’s something we have to keep up.”

The winner of the I-8 Border Trophy goes to the team with the most points in the 12 regular season games between the teams. San Diego leads the series after four games with a 3-1-0 record and six points; Tucson is 1-2-0-1 with three points. The bragging rights to this season’s trophy remain up for grabs with eight games remaining to be contested.

Young guns

The first month of the season in the AHL often isn’t indicative of things to come as rosters regularly turn over during the offseason, new coaches bring new philosophies and prospects adjust to the game – particularly the speed and strength – at the professional level.

In some cases, the first month of adjustment offers some prospects the opportunity to jump ahead of other prospects in an organization.

The Roadrunners entered the Nov. 22 game paced in team scoring by four rookies: Strome, right wing Nick Merkley, defenseman Kyle Capobianco and Pederson.

Both Strome and Merkley are first-round draft selections (both in 2015); Capobianco is a third-round pick (63rd overall in 2015) while Lane went undrafted.

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All are 20 years old, highly motivated and highly coachable. The Coyotes look to benefit form their development in the AHL.

Strome and Capobianco (one goal, 10 assists) rank first and second, respectively, in assists on the team while Merkley (nine goals, seven assists) tops the Roadrunners in total goals as well as four power play goals. Capobianco has a four-game assist streak going.

Pederson has scored five goals in his first 11 games.

Strome received the AHL/CCM Player of the Week award for the period end Oct. 29 after collecting seven points and a plus-8 rating while helping Tucson to three consecutive victories. He hasn’t stopped accumulating points since then.

The 22 points rank Strome second among all AHL scorers.

Strome has collected seven points (three goals, four assists) in three games against the Gulls this season. The wonder boy from the Ontario Hockey League has already caught the eye of San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins, a former head coach in the NHL.

“They’re doing it right with him,” Eakins offered insight when asked about Strome. “There’s a kid that needs to get his feet wet in pro hockey to be set up for success instead of trying to find his way through a very tough NHL. He’s here developing here in the AHL like so many great players have done, and he’s playing extremely well.”

Strome has quickly embraced the Roadrunners and the AHL.

“I’m getting the opportunity here to produce, to be on the power play unit, a penalty kill unit and get a lot of minutes,” the Coyote top draft pick said in a recent post on the Tucson website. “I’m enjoying my time here. I’m enjoying the team winning, and I’m really working hard. We’re building a culture around here that’s based around the expectancy to win, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

Making the save

All three Tucson goaltenders have received call-ups to the Coyotes this season, though Hill is the only one who has actually seen game action.

Following the Nov. 22 shutout against San Diego, Hill lowered his GAA to 2.00 with a .923 save percentage. He is 3-2-1 on the season in six game appearances.

Miska is 5-0-0 with a 3.44 GAA and .884 save percentage in seven games. Langhamer is 1-0-1 with a 1.59 GAA and .947 in three game appearances with Tucson this season.

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Hill made his NHL debut on Oct. 17 in a 3-1 loss to the Dallas Stars. Hill stopped 31 of 33 shots he faced and earned high marks for his performance.

Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet was so impressed that he gave Hill additional playing time while Arizona starter Antti Raanta was sidelined with a lower-body injury.

Hill, a third-round pick (76th overall) in the 2015 draft, was winless in his three games with the Coyotes, sporting a 0-3-0 record with a 3.76 GAA and .880 save percentage. However, he was excited at the opportunity to showcase his abilities at the NHL level.

“It was cool,” explained Hill, a second-year player with the Roadrunners. “It’s obviously a dream come true to play in the NHL. There are no words to describe it. You dream about it growing up since you can remember. To play there was a great experience. It was a dream come true.”

Hill, as well as the other netminders on the team, are hoping to get additional call-ups in the future.

“I’m taking it day by day, working hard down here and trying to get back up there again,” Hill said.

What’s trending

Defenseman Dakota Mermis rejoined the Roadrunners on Nov. 22 after suiting up for seven games with the Coyotes. He’s played eight games for Tucson this season with a goal and two assists.

An early season call-up from Tucson, forward Mario Kempe is still with Coyotes. Kempe, 29, from Sweden, has logged 18 games in the NHL with two goals and four points. He made an impression on Coyotes management with a goal and assist in the Roadrunners’ season opener.

Scottsdale native Zac Larraza, who scored his first goal with the Roadrunners in the team’s season opener, has prospered since being assigned to the Fort Wayne Komets, Tucson’s ECHL affiliate. In eight games with the Komets, Larraza has collected nine points on one goal and eight assists.

Larraza, a seventh-round pick (196th overall) by he Coyotes in the 2011 draft, played three games with the Roadrunners before being reassigned. It was the first time in his professional career the 24-year-old forward had represented his home state on the ice.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(Nov. 24, 2017)